Peace Corps volunteers recall life-changing experiences
By Colin Anderson
Upon graduating high school we all face the same challenging question: What do I want to do with my life? One path is to continue your education at a traditional four-year university, community college or technical school. Many enter the workforce in a wide range of jobs or family owned business. Still others feel the need to serve their country through military service. And a few simply set out to explore the world while they aren’t tied down to a career, marriage or family. In 1961, another opportunity arose for young people across the country.
Then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy wrapped up a day of campaigning and arrived on the campus of the University of Michigan at 2am. Though the press corps had all retired, 10,000 students were still assembled, waiting to hear from the candidate. From the steps of the Student Union Building, Kennedy issued a challenge to the assembled crowd; a challenge that would bring about a new path of service to the country once he was elected to the White House.
"How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend (upon) the answer to the question of whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.”
In March of 1961, President Kennedy created the Peace Corps, and in the 58 years since, nearly a quarter of a million Americans have answered his challenge to serve their country by utilizing their skills in the developing world.
Northwest resident Wayne Nishek was among the first batch to answer the president’s challenge. Wayne grew up on a farm but always wanted to see the world. He studied abroad in England in the late 1950s and was able to experience a different culture for the first time. He also recalls seeing the devastation from World War II still present in the likes of crumbled buildings and deep holes in the landscape where bombs had dropped.
“I wouldn’t say I was draft dodging, but I didn’t want to go to Vietnam like my three older brothers, but I still wanted to see the world and help people,” recalled Wayne, now 78.
Wayne was at a farming conference in Denver when he first heard of the Peace Corps, and it didn’t take much selling for him to sign up. Wayne and his girlfriend signed up to be part of the first team of Peace Corps volunteers to enter southern Bolivia, but first a whole lot of life needed to happen.
“We decided to get married before we left, so we scrambled and made it happen. We took a three-day honeymoon and then got on a plane to Miami to begin our training,” said Wayne.
Their stay in Miami was short lived however, as the night they arrived coincided with the Bay of Pigs Invasion that set the region under immense tension. The newlyweds were instead flown to Vermont for months of training that included the Spanish language and military-style survival courses.
“I remember them taking us out in a raft with our hands tied behind our back and pushing us out into the water,” said Wayne.
Of the original 60 or so signups only about half made it through the training. After several months of training they were on their way to Bolivia. Once on the ground, Wayne used his farming background to help with a local rice co-op which was dealing with constantly broken-down machinery. He showed the Bolivians the mechanics of how an engine works on a combine and what was needed to maintain it. He created manuals written entirely in Spanish and was able to help vastly improve their harvesting skills. Once that project was running smoothly, he moved onto helping out with local 4-H style programs where he helped the locals breed healthier animals such as hogs and chickens. What seemed like a few simple skills he had learned through his own upbringing ultimately changed and improved the lives of countless people in the region.
“People say they don’t have anything to offer, but there are a lot of skills that translate in developing countries. A lot need help with simple mechanics, reading, bookkeeping and just developing plans,” he said.
Wayne’s two years in Bolivia would evolve into a lifetime of service. He would spend 19 years in Africa building homes and schools in far remote villages and teaching locals how to create and patch clay stoves. He would eventually run the first Peace Corps training camp in India, where he would send new recruits out to a remote village for a week to teach them how to get by with very little.
“They learned a lot about culture, surviving with almost nothing, and came back wanting to focus on learning the language,” he said.
Of all the impact he made, it was one of the smallest things that might have gone the furthest. Back in Bolivia, the humidity and heat always attracted flies, and no one was using a screen door. Wayne showed them how to build a screen and, using old rubber bike tires, create a swinging screen door for a few of the homes. When he visited 15 years later it was still the talk of the town.
As he looks back at his experience, he shares that he was only just trying to make some sort of contribution to the world but instead did so much to impact a community and make it a healthier place to live. It is something of which he is proud.
Like Wayne, Pastor Andrew Hinderlie had studied abroad with his experience coming in Thailand. After graduating college in the Midwest in 1978, he thought he might go back to Asia and possibly teach—until he met up with an on-campus Peace Corps recruiter.
“After a lot of thought, I decided to do it,” said Andrew.
With not a lot of building or farming background, the Peace Corps decided Andrew’s best fit was in planning and logistics. He went through language training and was taught survival skills as well (now a less intense version than Wayne’s). He was sent to the Togolese Republic, also known as Togo, in Africa to help oversee logistics and financial planning projects for the local government.
“We would supply the expertise for the local masons, carpenters, architects, planners and problem solve with design teams,” he said.
Andrew’s team built schools, outbuildings and large dry-storage buildings for grains. A self-described “Minnesota nice guy,” Andrew admits to being hesitant in some of his early decision-making as to not offend locals but learned how to be a confident leader by running many projects.
“We always worked as a team, and I didn’t always want to push hard, but I learned I often had to push people to really get stuff done.”
Andrew would facilitate many projects across Africa, but some of his most impactful messaging came through simple conversations. While he was learning about different cultures, Andrew was also sharing with locals the ideals of American Democracy.
“This would spur discussions about our system, and a lot of times the locals would ask why they didn’t have the same freedoms and democracy in their country,” he recalled.
Andrew’s commitment to his faith is evidenced from his position of pastor at a Lutheran church, but he was never afraid to explore his beliefs and how they differ from those in other nations and religions. He went to all the different churches he could find and learned from practicing Buddhists as well.
“I don’t see God as just in my denomination but in all places. I see God as a God that loves this world.”
Wayne recalls spending time in Muslim villages as well and being treated with the same respects as the locals.
“I would leave my shoes and all of my stuff on the beach when I went for a walk. When I came back an hour later my stuff was always still there. Where in America do you think that could happen?” asked Wayne.
While both men specialized in different areas, traveled to different lands and had different experiences, both Wayne and Andrew came back with a similar understanding of the world and themselves.
Wayne still speaks monthly with a few of the folks from his original volunteer group; relationships that have stood more than 50 years. When Andrew returned home he quickly got involved with the international community, hosting students and having welcome parties in his parents’ home.
“Once you come into my home, you are always welcome,” he said.
In Togo, Andrew was welcomed with a smile and, despite cultural difference, he maintains many were very similar to the Americans he grew up with. Strangers would open up their homes to serve him a meal and would often even put him up for the night, a courtesy Andrew utilizes in his own home today.
Wayne recalls dining with families as well and the common theme of respect and understanding that can be shared over a meal.
“Almost every country has unique things in their culture, but if you treat human beings like human beings, eat food and share drink with each other, you’ll be accepted into a family.”
The impact the Peace Corps has on its volunteers like Andrew and Wayne is felt long after they’ve left. Spreading the democratic ideals of the United States has inspired people in developing countries to fight for additional freedoms and take political office. Many come here to work on college degrees or to become doctors to bring aid to their homelands. What might seem like common skills to us can be life altering for a group of people whose daily struggle often isn’t paying bills but finding enough food and clean water for their family.
“I really didn’t realize the privileges I had as an American until I came home,” said Andrew.
“You learn to do with what you can, and we can do so much with American ingenuity,” said Wayne.
Both men share their experiences of keeping an open mind toward other cultures with those they encounter throughout the day. In a time of increasing division, both come back to sharing a meal and having a conversation.
“People don’t learn how to speak face to face or to talk one on one anymore, which I hope will change,” said Wayne.
“We are so afraid of those who are different, and I don’t think that’s who we are as Americans,” said Andrew. “I think we’ll grow through this because we are a country that celebrates diversity and (know) that we don’t all have to be the same to lead a wonderful life.”